Happy Mardi Gras, y’all! On this fattest of Tuesdays, we turn our attention to the bayou, where Zelda’s roots lie, and an all-Cajun edition of All the Fixin’s. This week, Zelda — ably assisted by her sous-chef, Scout — tackled one of her family’s favorites, particularly at this festive time of year. Jambalaya is, like many of Zelda’s favorite foods, a rice-based dish, involving some combination of meats and vegetables and a whole lot of spice. The meat can range from chicken and pork to seafood and game, while the vegetables typically include the “holy trinity” of Cajun cuisine — onions, celery, and green bell peppers — plus other goodies. Like most traditionally rural cuisine, it’s a dish that’s ripe for improvisation; whatever ingredients you had on hand, in whatever quantities you could scrape together, all went into the pot.
Jambalayas fall into two camps, Creole and Cajun, with the former including tomatoes while the latter does not. Zelda’s family traditionally makes the Creole variety, and her mama’s go-to recipe hails from the very cookbook on which her half of this series is based. With the holiday approaching and a twinge of homesickness creeping in, she decided to set aside a day for herself, her fancy new pot (thanks, Mom and Dad!), and Paul Prudhomme.
Chicken and Seafood Jambalaya (based on Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen)
2 whole bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (This is a reduction from the recipe’s original 1 1/2, suggested by Zelda’s mama, and even so it results in a mighty spicy jambalaya! So if you can’t handle your heat, stick to 3/4 teaspoon or less.)
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano (dried)
1 1/4 teaspoons white pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 teaspoon thyme (dried)
2 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil (Paul calls for “chicken fat or pork lard or beef fat,” but if you don’t have any handy, we found canola oil works just fine.)
2/3 cup chopped ham, about 3 oz (Here Paul suggests you use tasso, a Cajun meat made of cured and smoked pork shoulder. His proposed substitute is any smoked ham, preferably Cure 81. After visiting three grocery stores and failing to find either of those, Zelda tapped into her grandmother’s roots and went with Virginia ham, cut in a thick 3 oz slice by the woman at the Whole Foods deli counter. It did the trick!)
1/2 cup chopped andouille smoked sausage, about 3 oz (Paul says you can also use “any other good pure smoked pork sausage such as Polish sausage or kielbasa,” but if Zelda’s Crown Heights grocery store can carry andouille, we believe your local grocer can, too.)
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 green bell pepper, chopped (The recipe calls for 3/4 cup, which amounted to about half a pepper, but it won’t hurt your jambalaya to just chop and toss the whole thing in. Waste not and whatnot.)
1/2 cup chicken, cut into bite-size pieces, about 3 oz (We found two chicken thighs did the trick.)
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic, about two cloves
4 medium-sized tomatoes, peeled and chopped (We used one can of diced tomatoes. Unless you have lots of time on your hands and a deep love of chopping, we suggest you do the same.)
3/4 cup canned tomato sauce
2 cups seafood stock
1/2 cup chopped green onions (also known as scallions)
2 cups uncooked rice, preferably converted (The ideal here is from Uncle Ben’s, who seem to be, if not the only, then at least the most prolific conveyors of “converted” rice. And while the recipe calls for 2 cups, you can just dump the whole box in.)
1 1/2 dozen peeled medium shrimp, about 1/2 pound
1 1/2 dozen oysters in their liquor, about 10 oz (Try as she might — and she really did try, to the tune of three grocery stores spread across two boroughs — Zelda could not find these suckers. The closest she came was Whole Foods, which offered individual oysters, unshucked, for $1.75 a pop. Now Zelda loves oysters, and she really did want to stick as closely as possible to the original on this, her first foray into jambalaya land. But ain’t nobody got $30 to spend on that, not to mention the time and equipment to self-shuck. So she decided to call it a day and double the amount of shrimp instead. Problem solved.)
Combine the spices in a small bowl, mix well, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350.
In a dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat until hot. Sauté the ham and andouille until crisp, about 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently. (Note: If you do not have a dutch oven, or another pot+lid that can go in the oven, you can do all of your sautéing and mixing in a saucepan and then transfer to an oven-safe dish later on.)
Add the onions, celery, and bell pepper. Sauté until tender but still firm, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and scraping the pan bottom well.
Add the chicken. Raise the heat to high and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add the seasoning mix and the minced garlic. Cook about 3 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom, until well-combined and fragrant.
Add the tomatoes and cook until the chicken is tender, about 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the tomato sauce. Cook 7 minutes, stirring fairly often. (How is this different from stirring frequently? Your guess is as good as ours!)
Stir in the seafood stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Then add the green onions and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Add the rice, shrimp, and oysters if you have them. Stir until well-combined and remove from the heat. Put the lid on your dutch oven or other pot. If using a saucepan, transfer the entire mixture to a casserole or other oven-safe dish and cover with a lid or snug aluminum foil.
Bake at 350 for 20 to 30 minutes, until the rice is tender but still a little bit crunchy.
Remove the bay leaves and enjoy!
In terms of results, this might be our most successful cooking venture to date. It tasted just like Zelda’s mama makes it, bursting with a symphony of flavor and packing a hefty kick of spice. In fact, we were so overwhelmed with our feelings of culinary triumph and flavorful bliss that we forgot to take the customary photo of “individual portion in bowl.” Instead, please enjoy this approximation of our jambalaya reactions:
Jambalaya is a lot of work. It requires time and effort and patience. Sometimes it can get a little messy. But like most things, it is more enjoyable when made with those you love. There’s room for everything, and everyone, in the jambalaya pot. And when it all comes together, sometimes in the most unlikely of combinations, the result can be a thing of beauty.
And it tastes really damn good, too.